It has been a few years since I’ve visited Smithfield. As I travel along Horsley Drive I pass by its landmarks, a Buddhist temple, a front garden planted with tall cacti, and the concrete bunker of the former Smithfield Post Office. I had expected this building to have been demolished by now, but it remains, with a ‘for lease’ sign on its roof, looking as impenetrable as ever under its coat of pale green paint, still broadcasting the postcode and the insignia of Queen Elizabeth from its postal days.
Smithfield is on Cabrogal land, a suburb half residential, half industrial, bisected by the winding path of the Prospect Creek as it flows towards the Georges River. For the most part, the factories are on the north side of the creek, but there’s a smaller area of factories and warehouses on the south side, and it’s into this area I turn into, passing by industrial units with rows of palm trees along the street-front. It is the kind of light industrial street that has places that fix, store or destroy things: building materials warehouses, mechanics, scrap metal yards and wreckers. There’s a generator hire place with a rusty crane on top of a grey shed like a giant metal spider. To one side of the street is a vacant lot, a former market garden now overgrown with high grass and a few remaining panels of colorbond fence beside a stormwater channel choked with rubbish and weeds. Across from it the industrial units continue with a kitchen warehouse and an auto mechanics with a sign for “Smithfield Diff & Gearbox” in jaunty white lettering.
I’m distracted from the mysteries of Diff by the premises next door. Here, instead of another scrapyard or warehouse, is a row of four Dutch canal houses. Painted green with white windows, the facade frames the sign for Holland House, and a mural of a Dutch port with windmills and the nose of a KLM jet painted on it. Had someone asked me to imagine what the most unlikely business to find in the Smithfield-Wetherill Park industrial area might be, I would be guessing for quite some time before I came up with a Dutch supermarket, cafe and cultural centre.
‘t Winkeltje, The Dutch Shop, has traded here in Smithfield since 1985. At first it sold only imported Dutch furniture, but soon expanded to a supermarket, stocking the herring, cheese and liquorice that is signature Dutch fare. Inside, the warehouse building has been transformed. There’s a tiled floor, a low ceiling crossed with wooden beams, and wood-panelled walls, against which delft tiles and ceramic figurines are displayed. Under the wooden clogs and orange bunting that hang from the ceiling are aisles stocking sweets, packets of chocolate sprinkles, jars of pickles, containers of chocolate milk, boxes of pancake mix: an entire pantry of Dutch groceries.
Behind the shop is the cafe, and I walk through an archway into a room of dark wood and low, golden light. Fringed lampshades hang down over the tables, which have thick, woven coverings and vases of pink artificial tulips decorating them. Around the edges of the room, in cabinets and on shelves, are clusters of objects, pennants from the NSW Holland festival, coffee tins, wooden skates, copper pots, Dutch joke books, more tiles, more clogs.
On the other side of the cafe the shop continues, with racks of Dutch CDs and LPs, then souvenirs and kitchenware, then the oak furniture showroom that started it all. There are loungeroom scenes set up, chairs and tables and cabinets with trinkets and books in them, as if, at night after the shop was shut, families might materialise to inhabit these settings, sitting around the oak tables to read, eat salty liquorice pastilles and drink hot chocolate. I’m particularly entranced by the cardboard television, of the kind produced as props for furniture showrooms. It is obviously fake – it’s even called Imitronics – but I still touch it to check.
Through another doorway is the Dutch Cultural Centre, a room with a library and display cabinets, and a model of Amsterdam on a table in the centre of the room. It is a view along the Singel canal, lined with houses which, when I lean in to look at it closely, I see have been meticulously detailed with shop window displays and patterned curtains in the windows. It had been built by a man who was a butcher by trade, the volunteers at the cultural centre tell me. He’d designed it based on photographs he’d taken of this set of streets in Amsterdam, and constructed it in his garage, where he had displayed the model until he moved into smaller premises, and it came here.
I peer along one of the streets of the model, where there’s a Bloemist, a florist shop, with a window display of tulips, leading onto a bridge over the canal, over which toy cars are travelling. This is where it is, one of the volunteers says, coming up to me with a city map that has the location of the streets traced out over it. They hand me a photocopied brochure, too, with an architectural guide to the houses and this terse description of the model: “As far as the carpentry is concerned: Number of window frames: 1800. Window panes 7126.”
I think about this as I sit at the corner table of Cafe Klein-Mokum, eating poffertjes, listening to the Dutch version of “Love is in the Air” playing over the stereo, feeling transported, if not to Holland itself, at least to a version of it. It was cosy in here: this was the feeling of gezellig, the menu informed me, and that this is the homely atmosphere created by activities such as playing board games and drinking hot chocolate by the fire when it’s cold outside. But I could not stop imagining that, instead of sitting in the cafe I had previously walked through, I had instead shrunk down to miniature size and was sitting inside a cafe in a canal house in the model of Amsterdam, looking out one of the 7126 windows at the carefully constructed city outside.
When the building across from the Crystal Street intersection was torn down, the Boot Palace came back into memory. Tall black letters, carefully painted, announced that this was the Leichhardt Branch of the City Boot Palace.
In the 1890s branches of John Hunter’s City Boot Palace were so widespread that their advertisements needed only to give the address as “stores everywhere”. Travel around Sydney and soon you would come across a Boot Palace, with a window display of shoes and slippers, showcasing the durable and elegant goods to be found within.
For a time in the late 19th century Sydney was well supplied with palaces. You could buy a pair of boots at the City Boot Palace, put them on to walk over to visit the International Exhibition at the Garden Palace, and afterwards take refreshment at the Sydney Coffee Palace. Palaces were not some kind of fairytale dream, they were places of everyday magic that could be browsed or entered.
In 1885 a writer for The Bulletin was so overcome by the “magnificent edifice” of the central City Boot Palace, at the corner of George and Market Streets, that mere words could not do it justice: “as the interior is fitted with carved cedar showcases, wherein the best and handsomest productions in boots and shoes are displayed, the effect can be better imagined that described”. Bulletin readers could give free reign to their wildest footwear dreams, and the palace that housed them.
The Boot Palace is long, long gone, and the building with its sign is now a fabric store and one of Parramatta’s Road plentiful wedding dress shops. But I can readily imagine the smell of leather and fabric that must have greeted shoppers. A clue to the Boot Palace’s atmosphere can be found in the 1911 novel Jonah, by Louis Stone, set in Sydney city and inner suburbs. The main character opens a shoe store, and describes how the shelves were packed from floor to ceiling and how “boots and shoes hung from the ceiling like bunches of fruit”.
Another feature of Jonah’s fictional shoe store was a four metre long silver shoe that hung above the entrance, gleaming in the sun, the “hugest thing within sight”. For a time its present day equivalent was the oversized Blundstone on top of the sign for Hylands Shoe city on Victoria Road in Rozelle. But Hylands closed, and while the sports physiotherapy place that replaced it kept the boot up for a while, it was eventually taken down. Now the city’s big boot is the oversized Dr Martens painted on the wall at the top of the escalators to Kings Cross station, outside Raben Footwear.
In the 1990s, for a certain type of rebellious teenager eager to assert their identity, Raben was the place to buy boots. It’s still something of a punk shoe store, with its cluttered displays of cherry red Docs, platform Converse sneakers, and every possible available colour of canvas shoe.
As for suburban shoe stores, most have long gone the way of other independent retailers, closing down as the proprietors age or the competition from chain stores became too great. Dicksons in Rockdale is one of these, recently closing after 55 years.
There is still Forbes in Hornsby, however, which has been around since 1940. Inside its shoeboxes stack up to the ceiling, and ladders are propped up against the shelves for staff to scamper up and down as they fetch pairs for customers to try on.
If shoe stores are mostly homogenous these days, shoe repair shops still retain their idiosyncracies. Many have persisted, unchanged, for decades. The best known of Sydney’s shoe repair stores is Roger Shoe Repair in Redfern. Roger is a kind of rock star of the city’s cobblers, known equally for his conversation as his skills in shoe repair.
Every one of these old shoe repair stores has a distinct character, like the Bankstown shop that is as small as a ticket booth.
Con’s Shoe Repair at Hurlstone Park has shoe lasts stacked up to the ceiling, and polystyrene crate of basil plants out the front (click on the link to go inside the store via the magic of Google – see if you can spot Con’s white cat). In Fairfield, Rapid Shoe Repair celebrates the amicable rivalry between shoes and keys (keys mentioned 10 times on the exterior, shoes 7).
Despite the skill of these craftsmen, there is one Sydney shoe that is beyond repair, so much so I was surprised to find it still in place. It has been almost five years since I visited it. At first, as I drove slowly along Hollywood Drive, I thought it gone, but then it appeared through a clearing in the trees, a little worse for wear but as dreamlike as ever.
And, elsewhere, if you look closely there are still palaces to be found, here and there.